Navdeep Saini drives the final nail in the coffin by removing Sri Lankan captain Lasith Malinga in Pune on Friday. Courtesy: AP Photo

In a 40-over game – reduced to 35.5 overs because Sri Lanka failed to go the distance – India were in a spot of bother for two overs, when they lost four wickets. But the gulf between the two sides seemed wider than the Palk Strait as the hosts won the third T20I, also the three-match series, on a canter.

Against Jasprit Bumrah and company, the Sri Lankan batting needed to punch way above their weight to score 202, their victory target. But when the islanders’ lost their first four wickets inside the Powerplay, the chase was effectively over. Dhananjaya de Silva’s half-century came in a losing cause as India won by 78 runs.

The highlight of the Indian batting in Pune was its top order and the bottom half. If a 97-run opening partnership between Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul laid the foundation for a 200-plus total, Shardul Thakur’s blitz at the death, along with Manish Pandey’s cultured hitting – the two added 37 runs for the seventh wicket off just 15 balls – ensured that a formidable score was reached. After a match- winning cameo in an ODI against the West Indies at Cuttack, Thakur scored 22 not out in eight balls on Friday, further attesting his value as a lower-order batsman apart from his medium-pace bowling that accounted for two wickets later in the evening.

From India’s perspective though, Dhawan’s half-century was more important. It wasn’t a fluent knock by any stretch. He was dropped on one by Dasun Shanaka at deep square leg off Angelo Mathews. A couple of dot balls had worn down the left-hander’s patience but Shanaka misjudged the skier. Then, on 12, wicketkeeper Kusal Perera didn’t react to a thick edge off Lasith Malinga, allowing it to go past him to the boundary. And yet, Dhawan’s effort deserved a big round of applause, for it oozed character.

With his form dipping, strike rate slipping and his place on the line, a 36-ball 52, including seven fours and a six, will give the left-hander some breathing space. Once he got into the groove, he played some gorgeous shots. A cover drive for four against fast bowler Lahiru Kumara and a slog-sweep for six off leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga were vintage Dhawan. He reached his half-century – his first in this format since November 21, 2018 – keeping a strike rate of 144-plus. Of late, it had been hovering around 110.

Dhawan-Rahul show

Dhawan was growing in confidence. He even brought out a David Warner-like switch-hit from his repertoire, although a top-edge and a couple ensued. He eventually got out trying to sweep chinaman bowler Lakshan Sandakan over the deep mid-wicket boundary, finding Danushka Gunathilaka instead.

Rahul’s selflessness played a part in Dhawan’s resurgence. When Rohit Sharma will return, the two will compete for the second opener’s slot. Rahul is the in-form batsman at the moment, with two half-centuries and a 32-ball 45 in his last four T20Is coming into this game, and a century and a half-century in his last three ODIs. On Friday too, he set the tempo of India’s batting with a cracking four off Malinga in the first over, after the hosts were sent in. The back-to-back fours against Angelo Mathews in the next over were exquisite. Then, he went on one knee and whipped de Silva over the long leg fence. But as Dhawan started to regain his touch, Rahul decided to take a backseat, allowing his partner to flourish. He didn’t mind being outscored.

Rahul scored 54 off 36 balls before Sandakan deceived him with a beauty. A tossed-up delivery bowled wide dragged the batsman forward to drive. The ball spun past the bat and Perera took the bails off in a flash.

Sanju Samson finally got a game and came in at No. 3. This game was an opportunity for the Indian team management to rotate and Rishabh Pant, Shivam Dube and Kuldeep Yadav made way for Samson, Pandey and Yuzvendra Chahal respectively. Samson started off with a six first ball. His timing wowed Virat Kohli. But the way he got out to Hasaranga might not augur well for India’s reserve ‘keeper in white-ball cricket. Samson failed to read the googly, played down the wrong line and was caught plumb in front. Shreyas Iyer picked a wrong’un from Sandakan and unleashed a stinging square cut. But the left-arm spinner foxed him next ball, holding it back and forcing Iyer to play early for a return catch.

Kohli batted at No. 6. India had lost four wickets inside 13 deliveries and they ran the risk of surrendering the advantage. Kohli and Pandey, at No. 4, didn’t let that happen as they added 42 runs for the fifth wicket. Then the skipper and Washington Sundar departed off successive balls. India needed fireworks at the back end to reach 200. Pandey and Thakur hammered 59 runs in the last four overs.

When Sri Lanka batted, Bumrah struck in the very first over. Navdeep Saini came and cleaned up Perera with a yorker. A young fast bowler steaming in and bowling yorkers early in his spell spelt supreme confidence. Saini returned with three wickets, as Sri Lanka folded for 123.